AL Central Race Looms Larger As Tigers & White Sox Both Slump

The American League wild-card race might not be clear, but it’s starting to look we might have one fewer contestant for the two berths in the one-game showdown that will kickstart the MLB playoffs in less than a month. The AL Central race between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox is starting to look like a winner-take-all affair. The Tigers went west over the weekend and were swept by the Los Angeles Angels. The White Sox dropped two of three to Kansas City and concluded a six-game homestand where they could only split against the Royals and Twins. Detroit, currently two games back in the division race is now 4.5 back in the wild-card race and have the Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles all to catch. With only three and a half weeks to go in the regular season that’s going to take a lot.

Furthermore, let’s not the obvious which is that if Detroit gets that hot, the wild-card won’t be relevant to them—they’ll win the AL Central. Both the Tigers and White Sox have to stop their current backpedal to the finish line. And since they go head-to-head in a four-game series to start the week it’s apparent that such a double hot streak can’t begin until at least Friday.

That might hurt the AL Central’s wild-card chances, but it sure ratchets up the intensity for these coming four nights on the South Side. Just a week ago Detroit beat Chicago three straight in Comerica Park, and now the White Sox try to return the favor. And just like in that previous series, the schedule works out so that Justin Verlander and Chris Sale each pitch the finale.

The Detroit-ChiSox battle is the biggest in the first half of the week, but two more showdowns are going to be crucial in the American League race, both wild-card and for division titles. The Orioles & Rays go head-to-head in Camden Yards. Baltimore split four with the Yanks over the weekend to stay one game back in the East, while Tampa grabbed two of three from Texas to keep within two games. What are the odds that when you said “AL East Showdown” for this spot in the schedule, you’d be thinking Rays-Orioles, and not Yanks-Red Sox, who hook up in the Fens? Boston is collapsing fast and if they’re interested in playing spoiler at all, we’ve seen precious little evidence on the field. If we don’t see it at home these next three nights, it’s never going to surface—and with still two more series against Baltimore and one more against New York, the Red Sox state of mind will be a factor in this race.

Los Angeles ‘ sweep of Detroit has pulled them even with Tampa Bay and both teams are only one game back of Baltimore for the last berth. Oakland, currently the #1 wild-card, has a 2.5 game cushion between themselves and elimination. Now the Angels host the A’s for a three-game set, though the hot Halos have a biceps problem for Jered Weaver looming over their heads and the ace’s start in Wednesday’s matinee finale is in question.

These three big series are where the action is at in baseball this week and over the next three days, TheSportsNotebook will essentially tune up for the playoffs, but having morning reaction to the results from all three locales, the same as will be the case for each day of the postseason.

Here’s the rundown on other series involving the contenders…

Pittsburgh-Cincinnati: The standings tell us the Pirates are a contender, only 2.5 games out of the playoffs. The results on the field tell us they just lost three straight to the Cubs, concluding a 2-4 homestand where the Astros were the other opponent. Their only hope is lack of focus from Cincinnati, who has run away with the Central.

Washington-NY Mets: Wednesday’s game will be the focal point, as John Lannan gets the ball. It’s Lannan who’s taking the place of the now-shutdown Stephen Strasburg. Keep in mind while Washington’s lead of 5.5 games is comfortable, it’s not insurmountable.

Atlanta-Milwaukee: The Braves just polished off the Mets three straight and have opened up a seven-game lead for one of the wild-card berths. After last year, no one in Atlanta is going to breathe too easy, and the Brewers are sneaking up on the .500 mark, having just knocked off St. Louis in a road series this weekend. Where I write, just outside of Milwaukee, there’s cautious talk of a miracle September run, although the Brewers would need to sweep a series like this for such talk to go beyond the hard-core fan base.

San Francisco-Colorado: Great weekend for the Giants, who grabbed two wins over the Dodgers and hold a 5.5 game lead in the NL West. Between now and the season-ending series with their rival to the south, San Fran has an exclusive diet of Arizona, Colorado and San Diego. It’s all there for the Giants to clinch before the final battle with the Dodgers even begins.

LA Dodgers-Arizona: Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a nagging injury, but is expected to pitch tonight to open the two-game series. This is a sandwich spot for the Dodgers, right between the weekend in Frisco and a coming four-game set with St. Louis, with whom they are battling for the last wild-card slot.

St. Louis-San Diego: The Cards come off a disappointing home series with Milwaukee, losing two of three and have been unable to put distance between themselves and the slumping Pirates and the sluggish Dodgers. Now they start a West Coast swing that could leave them regretting missed opportunity.

Cleveland-Texas:  Ron Washington’s Rangers can’t shake Oakland and the AL West lead is just 3.5 games, but after finishing a weekend in Tampa Bay—and two series with the Rays over the last week and a half—the Texas schedule gets easier and it starts right here.